Quantum Computing

Form bits to qubits: how computers leverage quantum quirks run things even faster.

Quantum Computing

Form bits to qubits: how computers leverage quantum quirks run things even faster.

By now,  I think you’ve got a pretty basic idea of what quantum mechanics is,  and how things behave in the quantum world. But in this last part, I  would like to shine some light on the topic “quantum computing”, which  (as you might have guessed) uses quantum physics in the field of  computers.

So  let’s start with the basics of computing. Not of quantum computing, but  of traditional computing. In classical computers, everything is  represented by 0’s and 1’s, and these are known as “bits”. Each bit of  information is just that. Either “yes” (or “on”, or “1”) or “no” (or  “yes”, or “0”) answer to a question.

You  might wonder: how does a computer, that does millions of different  things, use only two numbers for all of that? To get that, let’s clear  up some basics.

Computer  chips are up made of potatoes. Okay, that was bad. Computer chips are  made up of modules, which contain logic gates, where transistors are  stored.

A  transistor is the basic unit of a computer. You can think of  transistors as a switch that, when turned off, simply stops the flow of  electrons in the circuit — and therefore, the flow of bits as well.  Those bits can combine in different ways to represent complex  information.

As  mentioned earlier, these transistors combine to form Logic Gates, which  do very simple stuff like “open if both signals are on”. The formations  of several logic gates make up modules, that are finally able to  perform some of the functions we’re familiar with. Like adding two  numbers.

That  may not sound much but, think of this as a bunch of 10-year-olds. They  only know how to add and subtract, but thousands of them can  collectively solve literally any math problem.

There is one problem, however. You see, over time our computers have transformed from being entire rooms to just wrist watches.

The  transistors that interrupted the flow of electrons are so tiny, they  now measure about seven nanometres in diameter — a thousand times  smaller than a typical cell in our body. If they continue to shrink,  they’ll soon hit atom-size territory.

And we all know what happens when things become that small.

Everything changes.

The  transistors that previously blocked the flow of electrons are so small,  electrons simply quantum-tunnel through them. So essentially, they stop  working. And when they stop, everything stops. That’s the main reason  why we haven’t seen a breakthrough in the classical computer for years.

I think we’ve reached the dead end.

But  scientists were smart. Instead of finding a solution to this problem,  they turned these weird quantum phenomena to their advantage

They  knew that the old “bits ”won’t work in the Quantum Realm, so they  invented some new bits for the new Quantum computers. And they named  them “quantum bits”, or “qubits” for short.

There  are a number of physical objects that can be used as a Qubit. A single  photon, a nucleus or an electron. Quantum Bits are pretty complicated,  so I’ll explain them in the simplest manner.

Let’s  assume an electron to be a Qubit. All electrons have magnetic fields,  so they are basically like tiny bar magnets. And this property is called  spin. If you place them in a magnetic field they will align with that  field, just like how, a compass needle lines up with the magnetic field  of the earth.

Now,  this is the lowest energy state, when the electrons align themselves  with some other magnetic field. We call it the zero states or we call it  the electron, spin down(0). W can put it in one state, or spin up,  which means putting the electron, in just the opposite direction of spin  down. But that takes some energy. And that is the highest energy  state(1).

Now  so far this is basically just like a classical bit. It has got two  states, spin up and spin down, which are like the classical one and  zero. But the funny thing about quantum objects is that they can be in  both states at once. Now when you measure the spin, it will be either up  or down. But before you measure it, the electron can exist in a  Superposition.

Remember  Schrodinger’s cat? It was both dead and alive at the same time, exactly  like that, a Qubit is a superposition of both the 0 and 1, and you  can’t predict which of the two it is, as long as you don’t force it to  collapse into one by measuring it.

But what’s the point of having qubits if you can only read them as 1s and 0s? How are they different from a normal bit?

If you tried to “read” or measure a qubit each time, you’d keep collapsing it into a 1 or a 0. The trick is to not measure  it all at once: computers leave it alone in whatever state it’s in — 1,  0, or a combination of the two. They run their calculations with the  qubit, assuming it’ll do its job right. Calculations become faster  because of stuff like interference (constructive for the right answer,  destructive for the wrong one). And then, when the  algorithm’s over, it finally measures it — collapses the wavefunction,  unbags the cat — to get an ordinary, binary, result.

Qubits are way more efficient than bits — but only when you’re not looking at them.

The  real trick to Qubits, however, is Quantum Entanglement. Entangling two  bits can be very beneficial because as we add more and more bits  together, we turn them into a combined system. This means that measuring  just one Qubit, or one combination, will directly give us the  properties of the others.

Which, when programmed with complex algorithms, can provide a huge increase in processing power.

So  in a nutshell, what happens is this: A quantum computer sets up Qubits,  entangle them with each other, and uses fancy maths to manipulate  probabilities. Then, it finally measures the outcome, collapsing  superposition into an actual sequence of 0s and 1s.

So  if quantum computers are so powerful and effective, why haven’t they  taken over the world? Cause we need to have at least a hundred qubits  entangled in them. And till now, we successfully managed to cramp only  fifteen.

That’s one of the main problems in quantum computing, at least for now.

Why can’t we just slap in some more qubits into the system? The reason is: decoherence.

Decoherence  is a situation where the results from our calculations don’t match the  input we gave to the computer. Like if we entered 2 + 3 =? and the result we got was Hello world. What! But why? Well, this happens mainly due to a change in the qubits, by something random that’s not being monitored.

What  sort of things can change these qubits? Almost everything, I guess. In  the quantum world, anything can bump into our qubits and cause these  changes. Qubits are extremely delicate. A single photon, for example,  can affect the qubits in ways that cannot be tracked. And this can  seriously change the results.

That’s  a real concern, because quantum computers will probably be used for  heavy calculations and simulations — like calculating the trajectory of  the spaceship carrying millions of dollars’ worth of cargo to Mars —  where there’s literally no space for error.

So  the more qubits you add, the more chances you have of encountering  decoherence, because now more qubits are exposed to external changes. So  you’re just multiplying your problems with each qubit you add.

The  problems don’t end there. To accurately measure qubits and collapse  them into usual bits, we need to have these sub-atomic particles as  stationary as possible. That means keeping them cool.  Because of this, you can only find quantum computers in high-end labs,  installed with freezers maintaining the temperatures at around -273 C.

That’s just 0.15 Kelvin above Absolute Zero, the lowest temperature possible in the universe.

Also, till now, scientists haven’t managed to keep superposition for very long.

All  this suggests that a quantum computer is probably is not a replacement  for our classical computers. In fact, because of all this, an ordinary  calculation might take more on a quantum computer than on a classical  one, at least for now. So we’ll still be having traditional computers in  our hand, for quite some time.

If  our desktops and our phones aren’t going quantum anytime soon, is the  “quantum revolution” even significant to us? Actually, it is.

While  quantum computers might not replace ordinary machines, they’d be vastly  superior in other areas — once the above-mentioned problems are solved,  that is.

One useful area is database-searching. See, what your classical computer does is, if asked the question Are apples there in the grocery list?,  it checks each entry for apples, and gets the answer back in 0 or 1. If  it gets back 0, then it moves on to the next entry. This process keeps  on looping until one of the entry matches “Apples”.

A  Quantum Computer, on the other hand, needs only the square-root of that  time, because it can look through all the entries at once. For larger  databases, with millions of entries, that is one huge difference.

But the most famous use of quantum computers, by far, is ruining IT security.

Right now, what happens is, all your passwords and bank information and even nuclear codes are kept secure by highly advanced encryption systems. These encryption systems run some random math functions on your password, and store it in that form.

For  example, suppose your password was 123. Suppose, the encryption  software your bank uses performs the following function: it adds 24 to  each digit, multiplies the result with 92, and finally subtracts it by  42024588. The actual password is known as the private key, whereas the  random number generated would be called a public key.

After  running this, your password would now be encoded and stored in that  form. Now, if someone by chance, a hacks into the bank database, he  would find all the passwords in some random sequence of numbers. In our  scenario, he would see 37667823 instead of 123. Well, actually he can,  in theory, use the public key to find the private key, using all  combinations. Luckily, doing the necessary math on any normal computer  would take years of trial and error.

But a quantum computer, with its exponential speed-up, could crack it in minutes.

At  the same time, quantum computing opens up new possibilities of  improving encryption by creating the whole new field of “quantum  cryptography”. This could potentially allow for new approaches, and  enable brilliant minds to fundamentally change how we think about  security in the modern age.

Another  possibility is that of cloud computing. Suppose you have a tremendously  difficult calculation to make, which is almost impossible for your  traditional computer to make.

What  you will be able to do is, you can send this calculation to a  supercomputer installed in a lab, via the cloud. The computer will solve  the problem in minutes and send you back the results.

In this way, supercomputers instead of replacing our computers, work as an aid to them. And this is game-changing.

Think  of all the problems, in fields like medicine or environment, that we’ve  not been able to solve because of the complex calculations that come  with them. With the help of quantum computers, we’ll be able to improve  the inefficient processes — in ways we haven’t been able to for the last  100 tears.

Today, however, all of these ideas are in their infancy.

Right now, instead of focusing on building quantum computers, companies are trying to build the algorithms that’ll make these things possible. Because in order to use quantum  mechanics, collapse superpositions, and entangle qubits, we have to work  and think in Quantum Mechanics.

Which, by far, has been the most difficult thing to do.

Quantum  computing exhorts us to see the world from a different angle. And will  we be able to achieve what even brilliant minds like Richard Feynman  couldn’t?

Will quantum computing revolutionise the world? Maybe.

That totally depends on us.

Quanta in a Nutshell: This article is last of a four-part series on quantum mechanics. Parts One, Two and Three are available here.

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